The Kosovo Failure Mission Impossible in the Balkans

For four months, three diplomats tried to get the Serbs and the Kosovo Albanians to find a compromise agreement. Both sides, though, proved unwilling to budge. A look inside the failed negotiations.

It was a beautiful summer day in late July, and German diplomat Wolfgang Ischinger was heading out for a well-deserved vacation. As he sped down the Autobahn toward the Austrian city of Salzburg, his phone rang. Ischinger picked up, thinking it was a friend he and his wife planned to meet to attend the production of "Everyman" at the Austrian city's famous culture festival. But he was wrong. The phone call marked the premature end of Ischinger's vacation -- and a temporary hiatus from his comparatively uncomplicated life as Germany's ambassador in London.

Kosovo Albanians are biding their time for now. But a declaration of independence is almost a certainty.

Kosovo Albanians are biding their time for now. But a declaration of independence is almost a certainty.

Foto: AFP

On the other end of the line was German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier. The two men had met many years before at the beginning of the administration under Gerhard Schröder; they trusted each other and were on a first-name basis. Wolfgang, Steinmeier said, getting right to the point, I'm about to make you an offer you cannot turn down. We are resuming the negotiations over Kosovo, and we would like to form a trio of negotiators, consisting of you, a Russian and an American. But instead of negotiating on behalf of our country alone, you will be the voice of all 27 members of the European Union. And because Kosovo is a European problem, you will also be the lead negotiator. Come to Berlin and we'll discuss the rest.

Although Steinmeier's offer came as a surprise to Ischinger -- after all, he was in vacation mode -- he also knew that the request was a great honor. It's rare that the European Union chooses a single diplomat to represent its interests. When it comes to the Middle East conflict or the Iranian nuclear program, the Germans always have a seat at the table, but so do other countries. Sometimes it's a preventative measure designed to ensure that Germany, Europe's dominant economic power, doesn't overshadow the prestige-hungry British, French and Italians. But despite their neighbors' fears, the truth is that the Germans have no qualms about being part of a collective endeavor.

Kosovo, though, is a different story. The war over the small, poor Serbian province in the spring of 1999 marked a turning point for German foreign policy. For the first time since its establishment in 1949, the Federal Republic of Germany took part in an armed conflict. In radio and television interviews Ischinger, a deputy in the German Foreign Office at the time, argued that the war was justified. He was so convincing that he incurred the displeasure of his boss, then-Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer. Ischinger is intimately familiar with Kosovo and he knows exactly who the key players are.

Ten minutes after Steinmeier's call, Ischinger's phone rang again. This time it was Christoph Heusgen, Chancellor Angela Merkel's foreign policy advisor. He was calling to reiterate more officially what Steinmeier had just told him as a friend: The Chancellor would like you to be in charge of the negotiations, he said. Merkel also asked that he be careful to work closely with all 27 EU member states, Heusgen told Ischinger.

A Host of Conflicting Interests

It had been a difficult job convincing Javier Solana, the EU's head of foreign policy, to agree to Ischinger serving as chief negotiator. In Italy, President Romano Prodi would have preferred to see one of his close associates head up the negotiating team. Meanwhile, in Paris, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner considers himself the premier authority on issues relating to Kosovo. Kouchner was the province's international administrator between 1999 and 2001. His New Year's Eve appearance holding an olive branch on the bridge dividing the shattered town of Mitrovica has remained unforgotten as an amiable if slightly inappropriate gesture.

The British made it clear, in a roundabout way, that they considered too much eagerness to be detrimental. The Spaniards were concerned that EU support for Kosovo independence would send the wrong message to separatists in their own country. For Ischinger, this meant having to deal with several challenges and a host of conflicting interests.

The other two members of the trio of mediators were quickly appointed. One was Frank Wisner, a 69-year-old veteran US diplomat who has served as ambassador to both the Philippines and India. Wisner is related by marriage to French President Nicolas Sarkozy. His wife was previously married to Paul Sarkozy, the president's father. The Russians sent Alexander Bozan-Kharchenko, 50, a special envoy of Moscow's foreign ministry.

Each of the three men came to the table with instructions from their respective governments. The only problem was that these instructions differed. The American government favors independence for Kosovo. The Russian government, opposed to any changes in the status quo, wants to see Kosovo remain a Serbian province. Moscow, as a member of the UN Security Council, vetoed a comprehensive plan for Kosovo developed by former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari, killing the proposal.

The Germans, for their part, wanted to make another effort to find agreement on Kosovo -- with the underlying goal that of getting all 27 members of the EU club to subscribe to a unified position. No exceptions -- a united Europe. That was the least that could be expected.

Ischinger, 61, seemed to be the ideal diplomat for tricky negotiations. He is adept at engaging adversaries and at expanding seemingly nonexistent options one millimeter at a time. When it comes to multinational crisis diplomacy, many senior German diplomats have a tendency to come on too strong -- a strategy learned in the old bipolar world. As a result, German diplomacy opens doors for politicians, though sometimes it becomes an end unto itself in which participants are doing little more than playing for time.

Complex Act of Diplomacy

Given the gloomy alternative -- a possible new wave of violence and killings in Kosovo and maybe even in Bosnia -- the Russians and the Americans agreed to a new round of negotiations intended to bring about a peaceful change in the status quo. It soon became apparent that the three mediators had been well chosen. Ischinger, Wisner and Bozan-Kharchenko refused to allow the talks to become mere show.

Time constraints created the necessary pressure. The trio submits its report to the UN Secretary General this Monday.

This left the three mediators with less than four months to complete an almost impossible mission, one that included tense and sometimes dramatic meetings with Serbs and ethnic Albanians -- meetings that often erupted in expressions of outrage and shouting matches. The prospect of a breakthrough would occasionally flare up -- always when the trio acted in unison. In the end, the effort -- a significant global event given the players involved -- yielded far more than the three mediators had hoped for initially. When looked at piece by piece, the talks present a portrait of a complex act of diplomacy.

A Small Black Hole

Kosovo is a small enclave in the center of the Balkans. Unlike Croatia or Bosnia, it has nothing to offer European vacationers, and as a result it often disappears completely from the public radar screen. It is rarely featured in the news, and when Kosovo does manage to make headlines, it is because German soldiers have been attacked in Prizren, a sitting president like Ramush Haradinaj is charged with war crimes in The Hague or statistics are released putting this corner of the Balkans on the map as a transit route for 80 percent of the heroin that reaches Western Europe.

The province is a byproduct of the former Yugoslavia. More than 90 percent of its roughly two million inhabitants are Muslims, and yet the Koran plays a relatively minor role there. About 100,000 Serbs, once the dominant class, still live in Kosovo and the province, under international law, is still part of Serbia. This status, say Europeans and Americans and, of course, the ethnic Albanian majority, has become untenable since the war. The goal of the international negotiations is to find a way for the two rival ethnic groups to live together in harmony.

Kosovo is as important as it is expensive for the UN and the European Union. A multinational force of approximately 16,000 troops is stationed in Kosovo to protect the Albanians from the Serbs, and the Serbs from the Albanians. The UN administers the region, while the EU pumps roughly half a billion euros a year into the region it calls the "western Balkans." The UN is attempting to develop the rudiments of a functioning state, from police force and military to judges, government bureaucrats, a constitution and a legal system. All these efforts were begun from scratch -- Serbia, after all, ran all governmental institutions until 1999.

Disillusioned 'Internationals'

The EU and NATO are engaged in what is commonly called nation-building. Kosovo is a NATO state, say local residents. But Kosovo is also a black hole into which enormous sums of money are being sunk, money that fills the pockets of dealmakers, smugglers and organized criminals, say disillusioned "Internationals" -- the term locals use for UN and EU envoys.

The trio of mediators met with teams from Serbia and Kosovo for the first time on Aug. 30, at the Austrian Foreign Ministry in Vienna. The event began as a series of what diplomats call "back-to-back talks." The trio would first speak with one party, and then with the other. Ischinger tried to set the tone by making it clear that he and his two counterparts had come to Vienna hoping to give the Serbs and Albanians an opportunity to engage in discussion. He told them that the trio was there to listen to their concerns and not to trick them, but he also warned them that the current diplomatic effort would be their last chance.

The Serbian team included Vuk Jeremic, the country's 32-year-old foreign minister, who studied at Harvard and worked at Deutsche Bank in London, but has little experience in international politics. Slobodan Samardzic, the Serbian minister for Kosovo, a man with a penchant for PowerPoint presentations and repeating himself, began the talks. Serbia, he said with seeming magnanimity, was willing to hand over a significant share of power to Kosovo. The province, he said, would be granted autonomy -- which it already has. Was that the kind of statement with which one begins negotiations, Ischinger asked? Yes, Samardzic replied. At least the Serbs were willing to talk.

One of the more positive signs at the Vienna conference was that Serbian negotiator Marko Jaksic, a handsome doctor from Mitrovica normally known for his lengthy, uncompromising speeches, said relatively little. Nicknamed "Dr. Nyet," Jaksic believes that war will result if the West supports Kosovo independence. Unlike the 1999 war, Russia would be on the side of Serbia -- and against the United States and NATO.

In Vienna, Ischinger told the assembled delegates how, many years ago, the West Germans and the East Germans, despite their many differences, had finally managed to sign an agreement with each other. He was referring to the Basic Treaty of 1972, a two-page document comprising 10 articles that regulated the coexistence of the two Germanys and even included an article that addressed -- and shelved -- the question of German reunification. This allowed the West Germans to argue that the question of reunification was still on the table, while the East Germans could claim that it was not.

Let us resolve the practical issues here, as well, Ischinger proposed. Serbia is Serbia, and Kosovo is Kosovo. The two entities can agree to regulate economic cooperation and to form joint governing bodies, while temporarily shelving the dispute over Kosovo's status as either a province or an independent nation.

Movement at a Standstill

But the Albanians weren't amused. They want a flag, a national anthem and an official seal. They want to sever all ties with Serbia. They want their own, independent nation. But what exactly would independence mean?

The trio's job was to develop compromises. If it failed, the Ahtisaari proposal would take effect, which would entail Kosovo becoming a internationally supervised sovereign country. The EU would take a central role in helping Kosovo become a functional state. And finally, the possibility of independence for Kosovo would be put on hold for many years.

The Kosovo Albanian negotiating team attended every meeting as a group. Fatmir Sejdiu, a 56-year-old lawyer and president of Kosovo, headed the faction. Prime Minister Agim Çeku, 47, had been an artillery officer in the Yugoslavian People's Army before joining the Albanian guerilla organization UÇK. The Serbs, unable to catch Çeku, killed his father and other family members instead. Tragedies like his are often the underlying cause of hatred for all things Serbian among Kosovo Albanians.

Çeku, unlike other former warlords who emerged from the forests to occupy positions of power, has managed to retain an aura of respectability. He is widely seen as an honorable soldier, incorruptible, though with no great talent for politics.

All or Nothing

Ischinger and Wisner were especially pleased with Veton Surroi, 46, a man who, unlike many Kosovars, has traveled the world. His father was a diplomat in the days of former Yugoslav dictator Josip Tito, and he grew up in Spain and Latin America. Back in Pristina in 1997, he founded Koha Ditore, which soon became Kosovo's largest daily newspaper.

The Albanians were uncomfortable with the German model Ischinger had mentioned. They went to the archives and, at the next meeting, presented the German-French Treaty of 1963. Prime Minister Çeku noted slyly that the agreement covered all of the practical elements of day-to-day interaction between the two countries. It was a treaty, he said, that he would like to use as a basis for an agreement with the Serbs. The Albanians were not interested in leaving aside status issues. On the contrary, they wanted Serbia to recognize Kosovo as an independent nation. It was back to the old all-or-nothing position.

The Albanians were convinced that they had already made plenty of compromises. US President George W. Bush had publicly promised them their independence, and they had taken him at his word. It was only this promise of independence that convinced them to agree to international supervision for their future nation. For them, this was compromise enough. And for them, it was written in stone that the trio could not demand any further concessions.

Only the Serbs could convince the Albanians to come around -- by making their own concessions.

Before the next meeting, Ischinger embarked on a tour of European capitals. He met with Steinmeier, with the effervescent Kouchner, with Javier Solana, with British Foreign Secretary David Miliband and Romanian President Traian Basescu. Officials at the Italian Foreign Ministry begged Ischinger to achieve something in the talks, anything to prevent an Albanian exodus across the Adriatic Sea to Italy.

The Model of the Two Germanys

The Serbs and Albanians met directly for the first time in New York on Sep. 28. The trio had devised a strict set of rules for the meeting. Each of them would deliver opening remarks, then the Serbs would have half an hour to respond, followed by a break. Then the trio would comment and the Albanians would be given 30 minutes to state their position. Then the whole cycle would begin again from the start.

As the mediators had feared, the meeting disintegrated into an exchange of the two parties' all-too-familiar, extreme positions -- ample evidence of the adversaries' basic unwillingness to negotiate. Diplomacy can often be little more than an exercise in patience. Until then the trio had taken the position that it would sit back and listen -- like therapists -- to the Serbs and Albanians talk. But that changed in New York. Ischinger obtained approval to take control of the initiative. The trio had decided to take things in a direction in which there had at least been some movement, the model of the two Germanys.

A Shimmer of Hope

When the delegations met in Brussels and Vienna in October, the trio presented them with 14 points, which represented the elements of the negotiations to date that they believed were not in dispute. One of the points was that Serbia would not have governing authority over Kosovo. The remaining issues related to customs, border controls and other practical concerns. But when the Serbs read the 14 supposedly inoffensive points, they were outraged. The list, they argued, was unreasonable, and 11 of the 14 points were clearly slanted in favor of the Albanians. The Serbs accused the trio of being partisan, and behaved as if they were about to walk out of the negotiations. As it turned out, it was nothing but a collective, fabricated temper tantrum.

Ischinger was silent for a moment and then shot back at the Serbians. How much do you expect us to tolerate, he demanded? Do you want to continue boring us for hour after hour with your proposals? The usually more reserved Wisner agreed. Even the Russian mediator said that the parties needed to be more cooperative.

The three men were in complete agreement. Their interests might have diverged, but they were also diplomats on a mission, and they were incensed over the Serbs' false show of outrage. By the time the three mediators had finished airing their concerns, it was quiet in the room. The Serbs issued an apology of sorts. The trio had held its own.

Skillfully Worded Text

Meanwhile, a team at the Foreign Ministry in Berlin had provided Ischinger with a draft agreement for Kosovo modeled on Germany's Basic Treaty, a four-page document containing 10 articles. "Neither party shall be entitled to act on behalf of or in the name of the other party in foreign relations," Article 6 read. Article 8, equally important, described "matters of mutual interest," ranging from trade relations to environmental problems to the pursuit of criminals. Without defining Kosovo's independence, the draft treaty stipulated that Serbia and Kosovo would behave as independent states. It was a skillfully worded text.

Wisner presented the draft treaty in Washington, where it was endorsed by the Bush administration, which treated it as a German-American co-production, not as Berlin's solo effort. Moscow also showed signs of goodwill. Although the trio had no illusions, the three men were suddenly enjoying themselves.

When Ischinger traveled to Moscow to promote his proposal, he expected Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to grant him a courtesy meeting and then turn the meeting over to his underlings. Instead, Lavrov spent an hour and a half with Ischinger and wanted to discuss all the details of the negotiations. Ischinger presented his idea of using the German Basic Treaty as a model. Lavrov seemed not overly impressed, but added that at least it was worth a try.

Bozan-Kharchenko, who attended the meeting, said afterwards that it was a fantastic discussion, and that he had never received such clear instructions from his minister. Ischinger was astonished. Those were instructions, he wondered? But at least things were moving forward. Slowly perhaps, but forward nonetheless.

The next steps were obvious. The trio would present the draft to the Albanians and Serbs in November, telling them that it had the seal of approval of the EU, the US and Russia. Ischinger and Wisner wanted to explain the philosophy of the agreement, which was to concentrate on practical matters and leave the status questions up in the air. Diplomats call this an "agreement to disagree."

That was when things became exciting.

Que sera sera

The key figure among the Serbs was Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica, a clever man and a professor of law. During the Tito era, he was fired from his university job due to his lack of obedience. He has written about the US Constitution, and he once seemed inspired by its concept of freedom. But NATO's interventions and the bombing of Belgrade transformed Kostunica from pro-American to anti-American. Today he is a nationalist, but by no means a warmonger like Slobodan Milosevic, who unleashed the Balkan wars in the 1990s and died in The Hague in 2006, where he was on trial for war crimes.

Kostunica kept returning to the bleeding of Serbia, the loss of Slovenia, Croatia, Montenegro and Bosnia-Herzegovina. And now Kosovo, he asked? The Serbs consider the province the cradle of their nation. In 1389, the Serbs suffered a historic defeat in the battle of Kosovo Polje (“Field of the Blackbirds"). Many of their holy sites and Serbian Orthodox monasteries are in Kosovo. Kostunica had a passage written into the country's constitution defining Kosovo as part of Serbia.

The only ones who have any sort of influence over Kostunica are the Russians. But Foreign Minister Lavrov did not seem opposed to the idea of a treaty that would leave the status question unresolved -- at least he didn't shoot down the concept when it was presented to him. Bozan-Kharchenko interpreted Lavrov's stance as a clear indication of what tack he should take. But then the Russian envoy's behavior suddenly changed, apparently in response to a new directive from Moscow. What had happened? Had Lavrov changed his mind? Had the Kremlin intervened?

Treading Water

From that point on, Bozan-Kharchenko became resistant and refused to discuss the treaty or even present it in writing.

The Serbs and the Albanians were back at the negotiating table on Nov. 5. Ischinger and Wisner neither presented nor mentioned the treaty. If they had, the trio would have fallen apart. The Serbs and the Albanians presented tentative proposals over the future status of Kosovo. They considered a model based on the Hong Kong system, under which an Albanian would be in charge in Pristina, but would still be at the mercy of Serbia. As expected, the Albanians rejected the idea. What about a confederation? It was an alternative that went too far for the Serbs and not far enough for the Albanians. We're treading water, Ischinger noted.

A few days later, Ischinger met privately with Kostunica in Vienna. After the meeting, he felt confident that the conservative nationalist prime minister was not as interested in sentimental claims to Serbia's historic sites or the Serbs still living in Kosovo. What mattered to Kostunica was geography -- the size of his country.

But what were the Russians' concerns? What did Russian President Vladimir Putin want? Putin's primary interest is that of helping his country emerge as a newly-strengthened world power, backed up by vast oil and gas reserves. For him, Kosovo is little more a parade ground where he hopes to show the Europeans and, more importantly, the US president, the limits of their power. In a speech, Foreign Minister Lavrov mentioned "two red lines" the West should not cross: the missile defense system in the Czech Republic and Poland, and independence for Kosovo against Serbia's will.

The trio met with the parties to the conflict once again on Nov. 20. At that meeting, Wisner and Ischinger tried to determine how far they could go and the American mediator explained the draft treaty. Within seconds, Kostunica declared haughtily that Serbia would never agree to such an underhanded effort. He insisted that practical matters could not be addressed until the status question had been resolved. It was clear that for Kostunica, status comes before partnership, not the other way around.

It was over.

State of High Alert

Ischinger had pulled out all the stops to assure the 27 countries he represented that a concerted diplomatic effort had been made to achieve a compromise between the Serbs and the Albanians. The Americans went along, even though they, as Wisner said at the beginning, considered new negotiations a waste of time. Russia also cooperated, at least for a time.

The trio met with Serbs and Albanians one last time on Nov. 26, as Weikersdorf Castle near Vienna. Although the meeting produced no palpable results, it did help to relax tensions between the adversaries. In the evening, the delegations came together for dinner at a long table in the knights' hall. Serbian President Boris Tadic and Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic sat across the table from Kosovo's President Sejdiu and Prime Minister Çeku, his designated successor Hashim Thaçi and the elegant publisher Surroi. Now that they were no longer called upon to argue with each other, the men talked about their sons and daughters, and about what they had done during the Tito era. Suddenly they were civilized men with civilized concerns.

Only one man was missing at the table in the knights' hall. Prime Minister Kostunica, who wanted no part of the festivities, ate alone in a restaurant, surrounded by his bodyguards.

The trio has now completed its final report for the UN Secretary General, which the Security Council will address on Dec. 19. But what will happen in Kosovo? Hashim Thaçi, the former UÇK guerilla leader, who will soon be prime minister, has repeatedly assured the West that Kosovo will not rush into declaring its independence. Thaçi and Serbian President Tadic are said to speak on the phone occasionally. But will either of them be willing to stir up turmoil among his people?

The multinational force in Kosovo has been put under a state of high alert.

Note from the Editor: Due to an editing error pointed out by the EU , a previous version of this article could have been read to give the impression that Kosovo was on the road to becoming an "EU protectorate." Furthermore, any military presence in Kosovo will remain under NATO command.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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